Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Tale of Three Cities: Melbourne, Christchurch and Brisbane Writers Festivals

The rage monster and the Hulk, Brisbane Writers Festival 2014
August began with moving house (again). It ended with moving me (again): to festivals in Australia and New Zealand, then back to Australia again. Here is a quick summary, as I withdraw into my manuscript like snail eye stalks...


Late last month was the Melbourne Writers Festival, in which I had two gigs: an exercise 'walk' over Melbourne, and a Q and A at The School of Life.

'Torso of an Athlete'
The walk began at the National Gallery of Victoria, where I gave a lecture prompted by 'Torso of an Athlete'. Then we strolled to the Janet Clarke Rotunda in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, chatted about memories of PE (chiefly bad) and sprinted while thinking of mortality. (One dude yelled 'DEATH!' before he ran.) 

KL and DY, exercising minds
A couple of hours later, still in my Lycra, I was interviewed by School of Life director Kaj Lofgren. 

Kaj had read How to Think About Exercise carefully, and his questions prompted some great conversation. 

While at the Festival I had a chat to Paddy O'Reilly, whose new novel The Wonders is aptly named. Do read it.


A few days later I was off to Christchurch, New Zealand, for the Word Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. 

Sweating in Hagley Park,
I had five events, but my first job was straightforward: to enjoy a quick run in Christchurch's gorgeous Hagley Park. Plenty of paths and turf for boundless bounding. Rejuvenating after hours sitting, and lost to longitude.

My first event was 'The Stars Are Out Tonight', in Christchurch's stunning cardboard cathedral, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.

The line-up included poet Anis Mojgani, singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh, and novelists Meg Wolitzer, Noviolet BulawayoDiane Setterfield and Eleanor Catton.

I gave a reading on swimming and the sublime, from How to Think About Exercise (more in the The Guardian).

Philosophical hand waving at the cardboard cathedral
The Townend Conservatory,
Christchurch Botanic Gardens
On Saturday was a talk and reading from Philosophy in the Garden, hosted by the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. In the audience were some devoted diggers, pruners and Jane Austen fans. ("Did she garden, or just point?") Diane and I were also given a special tour of the gardens. My highlight: the alpine conservatory, with its rows of cyclamen.

Later that day I read My Nanna is a Ninja to a room of curious, chatty kids, and received a hug from one little girl. (She also told me that "cake is on the top of the food pyramid".) Reading before me were Gavin Bishop, Melinda SzymanikCharisma Rangipunga and Kristin Hersh.

Sunday morning saw me chatting to lawyer Marcus Elliot about How to Think About Exercise. Half of the interview was actually about philosophy, including the dangers of commercialising curiosity, and corrupting the autonomy of scholarship. (I had Bourdieu's work in mind, but didn't cite him). All good questions. Then we chatted more casually about mind and body, and the pleasures of striving.

JK, KH, DY, DH, with
festival director Rachael King
Photo: @ChristchurchLib
My fifth and final event at Word Christchurch was 'Capes and Tights', a panel on superhero comics with comic writers/artist Dylan Horrocks, novelist Karen Healey and filmmaker and comic artist/writer Jonathan King

It was a pleasure to see Dylan again, and to pick up his typically nuanced new collection: Incomplete Works. Karen and Jonathan were insightful and hilarious.

Avon River, Christchurch
Christchurch is a marvellous little city, and this 'little' isn't pejorative: perhaps my favourite town in Australia is Hobart, which is noticeably smaller than Melbourne. Christchurch is, for me, walkable civilisation. And breathable. And drinkable. (Amazing tap water.)

Having only briefly visited the city, I'll not pretend to comprehend the trauma of Christchurch. But from only a handful of conversations, it's obvious that the anxiety, grief and frustration remain -- everyone has a story about the earthquake and its consequences (immediate and ongoing). 

But there are also surprises: all about the city are pop-up gardens, exhibitions, artworks and more. The poetry slam, held on Friday night, was moving and fierce. In short: Christchurch folk are tough and innovative. 

I was, to be honest, very moved by the city's generosity and hospitality, and I hope to take Ruth and the monsters back if we can afford it. (My very small 'thank you' was a donation of signed books to the Christchurch City Library.)


On Monday I flew straight to Brisbane for the Brisbane Writers Festival. Leaving New Zealand I gained two hours and a few kilograms of books.

Sweat and light, Brisbane
To begin: an evening run along the river. The warmth, water breeze and lights: damned sexy.

My first four gigs were for the 'Word Play' program: sessions with hundreds of school kids, from all over Queensland. (The children from Chinchilla had driven four hours to be there.) 

DY and PC playing onstage
Illustrator Pete Carnavas and I taught poetry and illustration techniques, asked kids for their nanna suggestions ("jumping into a volcano with a duck on her face") and ran a quiz. 

It was a joy working with Pete, meeting the students and hearing them yell 'NINJA!' We also did an online session with kids across Queensland, which was strange but fun. 

Next on Friday was 'What is a Mind?', with medical researcher Kate Richards, psychologist David Roland and novelist Sean Williams, hosted by the ABC's Anthony Funnell. It was an intense conversation, often touching on illness and stress. There were also lighter moments, courtesy of Sean. 

I spoke about dealing with confusion and powerlessness (philosophy copes well with doubt), the horror of 'foreignness' within us (footnoted to Kant), and the importance of seeing the collectivities behind minds: organs, other selves, objects, landscapes.

BM, SW, AS, DY sharing the Who love
Photo: @nickystrickland
My next gig was a panel with actor/writer Ben McKenzie, novelist Angela Slatter and Sean Williams. The topic: DR WHO. 

I've not laughed so much in a long time. Bravo to my fellow panelists, and to the Brisbane Writer's Festival for programming such a groovy event.

My seventh and final event was a philosophy 'masterclass' (BOW TO THE MASTER, NOUS SLAVES). There were many more students this year, which is promising: perhaps philosophy is growing in popularity. 

The drama of philosophy: sitting
and thinking at BWF14
The point of my class was not just to talk about philosophy, but to do it: with essays, aphorisms and 'The Wind' prompted careful analysis and speculation.
poetry. Some excellent debate -- and once again Alison Croggon's poetry prompted reflection.


After four writers festivals in three weeks, I've the numbness of a long run -- but my legs are still jittery. My ambivalence about conversation remains: every time I shrank into silence, I met another novelist or poet to talk with. (And, for the most part, did not regret it. To paraphrase Willy Vlautin: how often am I around book people, you know?)

Before I sign off to quietly play Father's Day in our domestic jumping castle (yes, that's a metaphor), my thanks to those demiurges of literature, the festival directors: Lisa Dempster, Rachael King and Kate Eltham. I'm also grateful to the producers, program managers, coordinators and volunteers for their ongoing logistical (and psychological) support.

Special thanks to Marianne Hargreaves, Julie Beveridge and Megan McGrath for their 'above and beyond' labours; and to Xanthe Coward for fuelling my masterclass with fruit bars when my credit card failed.

Back to the manuscript. Snails eat paper, don't they...

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